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Backstage Politics
July 20, 2020

Carl Schmitt and politics in mass society



A thread connects human passions, political identities, and mass society with Carl Schmitt. Let’s see it.




Today, I want to speak to you about a complex issue in political science. I refer to the connection between politics in mass society, human passions, and political identities. I’m going to discuss them to show their relation with Schmitt’s thought. To be more precise, I’m going to clarify how Schmitt’s work happens to help understand the interconnection between these elements.

I have to admit this is a daunting task because we’re talking about many different aspects of politics. At the same time, I want to connect them with Schmitt’s main ideas. I believe this is worth it because what Schmitt said has a relationship with all of this. Indeed, as I see it, his thoughts are useful in this respect, and we’re going to see it.

The discussion will start with setting forth the transformation of politics with the emergence of mass society. After that, I’ll analyze the dynamic of mass politics and its connection with the dominant role of human passions in this realm. That will allow us to address the relationship between these passions and political identities. In fact, this aspect of the discussion has some relation to identity politics, but I’ll leave it aside. Although I’m going to resort to Schmitt’s different ideas during the explanation of this matter, I want to address them systematically at the end to clarify the connection I claim.


Politics and the rise of mass society


I want to answer two questions that I consider essential to make clear what I’m talking about. When does mass society emerge? What is a mass society? The answers to these questions will help understand the transformation of politics in the new historical context of this sort of society.

Mass society was born in the nineteenth century due to the leveling tendencies boosted by the Industrial Revolution in the past century. Its development occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the West. 

Usually, mass society is any society of the modern era ruled by large-scale and impersonal institutions, which also includes a mass culture that permeates the whole social body. It is one expression of modernity development because it involved a shift that broke with traditional society. Some scholars associate this process with the disappearance of traditional and aristocratic values. It represents a break with the past and involves a new social development that follows an entirely different trajectory compared with the old society.

There is no doubt that the Industrial Revolution was decisive in the birth of this new society. However, it doesn’t show the big picture of its formation. In this respect, I have to stress that the French revolution was fundamental in political terms to boost the development of mass society. It involved the politicization of the whole society thanks to the break with the old regime and the following expansion of the State. The need for the political authority to widen its social base and establish a new kind of loyalty led to the incorporation of the population to the political stage. That was a dramatic change and transformed politics decisively.

Before the French Revolution, politics had been very different. I don’t refer to absolute monarchies, where there was no representative government. I’m talking about liberal countries, such as England. Politics was the business of an enlightened and wealthy elite. Only a minority participated in politics, probably around 3 or 5% of the population. In these circumstances, the parliament was a political body intended to debate public affairs and reach agreements between the elite members. In this way, discussions developed in a very different atmosphere in which rationality and wisdom prevailed. That’s logical insofar as only a minority was involved in politics, and they didn’t need to look for anybody else’s support.

The formation of mass society led to bring the whole nation into politics. Since then, political participation has broadened by extending political and civil rights, such as suffrage. Politics stopped being the business of an elite gathered in cabinets to become a matter of all citizens’ interest. It was a crucial shift because it facilitated the emergence of new political organizations, such as modern political parties. Insofar as representatives had to deal with a broader political public, they also had to look for wider support outside their cliques. That transformed politics because the stage was completely different. How did the political class manage to get the support they need? The political discourse changed with the new social context, and politicians developed their organizations as electoral machinery to get votes. To do so, they resorted to propaganda and manipulation. They were means to achieve the public support they needed in their political quarrels.  

That involved the rise of mass politics, and also the increasing importance of social psychology. In this regard, I want to recall some authors that made remarkable contributions in this realm, such as Gabriel Tarde, and especially Gustave le Bon. This French sociologist wrote in the nineteenth century an essay on social psychology. In that work, he claimed that the crowd behaves irrationally. It follows its emotions and instincts. Environment, circumstances, and events represent the social suggestions of the moment, and they contribute to guiding the crowd behavior. His work mirrored the elite’s concerns over mass politics, and their need to attain the popular support they needed.

In general, social psychology represents a fundamental contribution to understanding the new role of the crowd in mass politics and the relevance of human passions in the political struggle. The development of different methods to persuade people and mobilize them in the political realm led to the systematic use of propaganda. In this way, rational debates of an enlightened elite gave way noisy speeches and the agitation of passions.


Political identities and irrationality


As we’ve seen so far, the formation of mass society is related to the emergence of mass politics. I have to mention that this process is also linked with the expansion of the State and its scope. In this respect, more and more human activities became a political matter, which brought the whole society into politics. It was necessary to attain the support of wide sections of the population due to the extent of political participation. As a result, politicians started to speak for a broader public rather than an elitist minority. This shift required the use of new persuasion methods that made the psychological manipulation of the population decisive.

Irrationality came into politics and started to play a central role in the politicization process and the shape of political identities. Political leaders understood that human passions are functional to mobilize people and get support. In this context, politics adopted a new dimension with the distinction between friend and enemy. Specific social differences became political insofar as they gathered people in rival groupings. In this process of politicization, human passions were crucial because political leaders appealed to them to mobilize supporters. That allowed these leaders to redefine loyalties and create political identities useful for their goals. These identities have a strong emotional dimension because they are related to the most intense association and dissociation that the political imposes. The dichotomy of the distinction between friend and enemy contributes to radicalizing people and stirs up strong emotions.

On the one hand, members of the same group establish a bond between them because they recognize each other as their peers. They share the same identity. These emotions are cohesive and strengthen unity. 

On the other hand, the identity of those who are considered the enemy, and therefore, the negation of their identity, boosts hostility, and bad feelings. That leads to conflict, which stems from the rejection of those who represent an existential threat.

In this context, in which political identities are essential to understand the dynamic of politics, symbols achieve a remarkable role because they condense these identities and fuel mobilization. Consequently, emotions permeate these identities in two opposite directions. They strengthen cohesion and rejection at once. Rational debates are impossible, and political polarization is the general rule. Irrationality dominates the political narrative because leaders resort to emotions and demagogy. Everything goes to agitate the crowd.


Carl Schmitt and mass politics


Schmitt understood politics inside the State and the political as part of this context in which people gather in opposing groups. In this respect, we shouldn’t disregard the notion of total State that Schmitt used. Modernity has been a process of State’s permanent expansion in all realms. That has involved the politicization of the many different aspects of human life. As a result, more and more people have gone through politicization processes. They have formed groups with their respective identities based on different goals, values, interests, and so forth, to fight each other and assert their identities. This aspect of Schmitt thought is interesting because it links with the rise of mass society and also mass politics. The incorporation of broader layers of society to political participation led to look for wider support. The role of identity in the definition of the political, with its dichotomy between friend and enemy, explains all of this.

Although Schmitt didn’t address the role of irrationality in politics, he stressed the role of identities. We can’t deny that relationship because identities end up linked with the distinction between friend and enemy. The crowd represents an excellent example of what mass politics is. In some way, it is the culmination of the total State that Schmitt referred to in his work because it entails society’s uniformity under the same central authority. However, when we talk about partisan politics, we have to deal with different groups competing and fighting each other. That happens because the distinction between friend and enemy means the most intense association and dissociation between people. That means extreme emotions permeate their identities, and it puts irrationality in the middle of politics.


Question of the day


Question of the day! What do you think about the role of emotions in politics? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.

Bibliography used:

Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political

Le Bon, Gustave, The Crowd

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